Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Ukulele: A Guide for Guitarists – Tuning

Here’s part three of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. Read the previous installment: Ukulele Sizes

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Guitarists trying to make sense of the ukulele may be thrown off by the reentrant tuning. Reentrant tuning is when the strings on an instrument are not ordered from lowest to highest, as they are on the guitar and bass. That confusion is compounded by the fact that ukuleles may be tuned several different ways, depending on the ukulele size, era and even location.

First, for clarity, lets get our string terminology straight. Somewhat confusingly, the “first” string of a guitar is the high E (the bottom string when held). The sixth string is the low E. So when I say the first string of a ukulele, I mean the one closest to the floor when you’re playing it, and the fourth string is the tone closest to your head. Yes, this is confusing.

Standard Tuning – GCEA

The most common tuning by far is G4-C4-E4-A4, also referred to as GCEA,  “C6” (for the chord these notes form) or “high G” (for the first string). This tuning is standard for soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles. These notes are equivalent to the D, G, B and E strings of a guitar at the 5th fret, but with the lowest note (G3) one octave higher. To put this more simply, here’s a mapping of notes on the guitar to the open strings of a ukulele tuned to GCEA:

Scientific Note – Ukulele String – Guitar string and fret
G4 – Fourth – First string, 3rd fret
C4 – Third – Third string, 5th fret (also Middle C on the piano)
E4 – Second – Second string, 5th fret
A4 – First – First string, 5th fret

What this means, of course, is that you can play any chord fingerings that utilize the first four strings of the guitar and they’ll be the same chord but a fifth higher. So a D chord on a guitar (XX0232) is a G chord on a ukulele (0232). The higher G string makes things sound a bit different – like a ukulele! – but this doesn’t change the chord.

Low G Tuning

The second most common ukulele tuning is the same as GCEA but using G3 on the 4th string instead of G4. This tuning is exactly the same as the first four strings of the guitar at the fifth fret. Players use this tuning when they want a deeper tone. Most finger style tabs – but certainly not all – are arranged for “high G”, so you need to add “low G” to your searches to find tabs specifically arranged for this tuning.

If you’re trying to play the ukulele just like a small guitar, this tuning works well. But if you’re trying to play the ukulele like a ukulele, I usually suggest at least starting out with the standard high G tuning because there are so many more resources out there for it.

Baritone Tuning – DGBE

Baritones, the largest of the four ukulele sizes, are commonly tuned D3-G3-B3-E4. These notes map directly to the first four open strings of a guitar. For this reason, many guitarists favor baritone ukuleles.

If you want the baritone volume, tone and size but don’t want to be in a different key than all the other ukuleles in a group, you can buy GCEA strings specially made for the baritone scale length.

Old Timey and Canada Tuning – ADF#B

Back in the tin pan alley days, soprano and concert ukes were commonly tuned A4-D4-F#4-B4. This is two frets higher than the standard GCEA tuning of today, and gives the ukulele a slightly more “high strung” sound. This is also the standard tuning still used in Canadian school systems that teach the ukulele to all students – much like we teach the recorder to most kids in the US.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: Chords

The Ukulele: A Guide for Guitarists – Ukulele Sizes

Here’s part two of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. Read the previous installment: Introduction


For all intents and purposes, guitars come in one size. Ukuleles, on the other hand, come in four common sizes, with a couple additional outliers. Each of the four sizes is 2″ longer in scale length (distance from nut to bridge) then the previous. Soprano is the smallest at 13″, Concert is 15″, Tenor is 17″ and Baritone is 19″.

Among less common sizes are the Sopranino or Sompranissimo that is smaller than the Soprano with a scale length of 11″. And on the other end of the spectrum, the ukulele bass is the most recent size to be introduced, and measures 2 inches longer in scale length than a baritone at 21″.

These sizes also differ in their traditional tunings. While soprano, concert and tenor all share the same traditional tuning of G4-C4-E4-A4, baritones are typically tuned lower at D3-G3-B3-E4.

All these sizes cause the obvious dilemma of deciding what size to buy. To each her own, of course, but most guitarists, in my experience, end up playing a tenor or baritone, finding the soprano and concert sizes a little too small.

I play a tenor and that’s what I recommend to guitarists just getting started with the ukulele. Tenor is the size played by famous ukulele players like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill. As the largest ukulele that is commonly tuned the same as the smaller sizes, it’s a good choice for guitarists if you’ll be playing with other ukulele players. And the larger body gives off a louder and richer tone, without being so large as to lose the trademark ukulele sound.

While the baritone is closer to a guitar in sound and feel, you’ll need to find special baritone versions of books and tabs, and playing printed tabs with other ukulele players is a challenge at best. Many players think baritones sound more like guitars than ukuleles. In my view, if you’re just looking for a travel size guitar, those exist and have all six strings. But if you want the benefits of a baritone (size and tone) without the tuning challenge, you can buy special strings to allow the baritone to be tuned in the traditional GCEA tuning.

The very best way to get a sense of the sizes is to go into a music store and try them out. The second best way is to watch Aaron from my favorite online ukulele shop play the sizes from smallest to largest.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: Tuning the Ukulele